Rob Epstein takes on the erstwhile impossible task of capturing the spirit of the Beat generation on celluloid.
Whilst previous films focusing on the literary movement have been gaudy and clumsy, Epstein’s HOWL is humble and aware of its presence as an homage to Ginsberg’s magnificent poem. The lack of success had by its predecessors is perhaps owed to the ubiquity of critical acclaim for the works produced by the protagonists of this literary era, setting an extremely high bar for artists attempting to recreate it. However, both Beat-newbies and die-hard followers will be enchanted by James Franco’s masterful performance as Allen Ginsberg. The actor deftly recreates the reading styles that Ginsberg adopted throughout his career with an exhilarating recital of the poem which dichotomised the opinions of readers across America at the time of publication in 1956. Franco’s performance is accompanied by cascading and evocative animations, which complement the opulent imagery of the poem. The film flirts with the audience with the introduction of other iconic figures such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, yet does so with restraint that ensures the film never strays far from its original objective. Epstein’s Howl is a cheering and heartfelt acclamation of a historically celebrated poem, honest and concise, as well as being an intoxicating portrayal of the vivacious beat movement of the 1950s.
i-D Online talked Ginsberg, poetry and censorship with HOWL’s Associate Producer and master of all things Beat, Peter Hale.
Do you remember reading HOWL for the first time? I had trouble getting through it! I was 16 when I first picked it up and wasn’t an avid poetry reader, but once I heard a recording of Allen reading it, it blew my mind. It clued me into the rhythm and breath, which is all right there on the page, I just wasn’t keen enough to pick up on it.
Why do you think the Beat generation are having ‘a moment’ in 2011? I think it’s all quite accidental. HOWL was intended to come out five years ago and the On The Road remake that’s out in the summer has been bouncing around for ages. I do think the materiel is relevant though, and the fact that these projects all got funded around the same time says something about a hunger for the subject. Like any real event, there has to be quite a few conditions all coming together for the perfect storm and that definitely seems the case over the last year for the Beats.
Do you think the film provides an accurate portrayal of the events? It’s definitely an accurate summary. Obviously quite a bit was left out in order to keep the film’s focus. Things were intentionally conflated, especially interviews, and even the reading of Howl, in order to capture Ginsberg over a few decades of his life. Franco’s Six Gallery reading really characterises a variety of Allen’s styles over his lifetime. The interviews weaved together were from as recent as the 1980s and as old as 1957. The team poured over every last image of Allen and his friends from the 50s, down to the wallpaper in his room, the fabric of his curtains, the books on his shelf, the shirt Peter Orlovsky was wearing and tried to match them. Mixed together, this gives a mosaic of Ginsberg, his life and the poem, which I think is the genius to their approach.
Are there other pieces of literature that you are aware have suffered from censorship restrictions that haven’t gone on to achieve the success and exposure that Howl has? Interestingly, off hand I can’t! It seems most books that faced some sort of censorship and went to trial, benefited from the publicity. I’m thinking of Henry Miller (who was in the audience at the Howl trial by the way, keenly aware its outcome would directly affect his books Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn), or William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, Lawrence’sLady Chatterley’s Lover, the big ones. In the case of Lenny Bruce however, though it’s not published material, the censorship pretty much ruined him.
As an avid blogger, do you see blogging as a celebration of the censorship free media landscape that we have in countries such as the UK? Absolutely. You still can’t play Howl on the radio in the States until late at night. Well, you can, but you risk the FCC fining you for indecency, along the lines of Janet’s wardrobe malfunction and so most independent radio stations wouldn’t dare risk it. The cost of defending a case alone would bankrupt a station. The internet in so many ways has almost made radio irrelevant in that regard.
Has the role and people’s interaction with poetry changed in the 50 years since Howl’s original publication? I think people read fewer books, and don’t have the time it takes to sit with a poem. The Six Gallery reading really broke open the world of public readings that dominated the poetry world for the last half of that century, ultimately giving rise to poetry slams and performance poetry, though it seems that it’s increasingly marginalised these days with mediocre poetry. Howl and the poets careers that were launched after that night, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, really helped bring poetry to an audience outside academia. That was a huge shift for the world of poetry.
What is your opinion of poetry in the 21st century? Does it still have a place or is there another mode of expression that you would say is its equivalent? As long as we use language, we’ll always have a need for poetry, a need and desire to express the space between words, to express the world in a non-literal way. Another mode of expression? Twitter? It does lead to some interesting haiku style constructions!
Howl opens nationwide from today and for a second Beat hit, make for the National Theatre and take a peak at some magnificent Ginsberg snaps, details here.
Text Joshua Mitchell